In the last decades, the accelerated pace of economic integration brought forward by globalization has influenced both the number and profiles of women migrants around the world. According to United Nations data, in 2009 there were 213 million international migrants worldwide, corresponding to 3.1 per cent of the global population. Half of the international stock of migrants is women. The migration of women is gradually shifting from a family reunification trend to a more economically motivated strategy, in which more and more women migrate autonomously to work abroad. The expansion of free-trade areas around the world has reinforced this pattern of female mobility and generated new challenges and opportunities for women around the globe.
The participation of women in migration flows depends greatly on their social roles, their autonomy, their access to resources, and the existing gender stratification of the labour market in a given country. Therefore, women face much harder burdens in migrating as well as in finding employment, compared to both men migrants and native women. They face the “double disadvantage” of being immigrants and female. Low-skilled or unskilled migrant women tend to find jobs in a limited number of occupations in the service sector, often shunned by national workers, with gender-associated roles such as cleaning and catering services, entertainment and care-giving. Relatively few women migrant workers are found in the agricultural sector, while there are many migrant workers in the textiles and garment industry. The marginalization of unskilled migrant women is often reflected in low-status jobs, low earnings, poor working conditions, lack of union representation and insecure contracts, often coupled with a precarious legal status. Skilled migrant women often go into welfare and social professions, including education and health care. One important and emerging area of concern is the greater vulnerability of women migrants to HIV-AIDS infections, which has been already noted in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite growing evidence about the gender-specific aspects of migration, most migration policies are not gender-responsive in either the sending or receiving countries.
In the context of intensified mobility patterns and women’s migration, clandestine channels of migration are a major cause of concern. Irregular migration often takes place through human trafficking and smuggling networks, posing further risks for women as it also involves exploitation, violence, coercion and abuse of power. Human trafficking happens more often to women than men due to existing gender inequalities.
Migration influences gender relations, either entrenching inequalities and traditional roles, or challenging and changing them. , This happens both when women migrate and men migrants leave their spouses behind.
An important positive contribution of female migration to developing countries is the money they earn and send back home. At the global level, female migrants send approximately the same amount of remittances as male migrants; however women tend to send a higher proportion of their income, even though they generally earn less than men. Migration also affects women who stay behind, as women play a central role as recipients and managers of remittances. Remittances are an important source of income for developing countries: formal and informal remittances are estimated to be three times the size of official development assistance.
While remittances can contribute to changing gender relations – winning respect for women who remit and providing more resources to women who receive remittances - they are also part of the so-called Global Care Chain, where migrant women from poor countries fill the gaps in care activities in richer countries in order to send money to other women left behind in the country of origin who take care of their family members, often through unpaid family labour.
While women who are willing to migrate in search of better economic and social conditions should not be refrained from doing so, there is a need for more coherence between trade, development and migration policies in both sending and receiving countries. To avoid jeopardizing their growth potential , sending countries should create overall conditions that make it appealing for women, especially qualified women, to stay or to come back home after a period spent abroad. Receiving countries, on the other hand, need to offer decent work and living conditions to migrants and mitigate the effects of "brain-drain" by providing training and capacity-building in the countries of origin. Facilitating remittance transfers, minimizing transfer costs, improving the financial literacy of migrants and their families, and diversifying the supply of financial services are all policy measures that would benefit women migrant workers and their families. On the other hand, practices such as banks requiring approval from a male family member before allowing women to open bank accounts, to obtain credit or to transmit remittances, should be reconsidered. Women’s financial autonomy and literacy are preconditions for achieving economic efficiency and equal social status.
Integrating into the global services economy is becoming crucial for the development prospects of many developing countries. Services play a central role in economic activity in virtually all countries of the world. Trade in services is a very dynamic sector in the global economy. World exports of commercial services amounted to US$ 3,350 billion in 2009, after growing on average at around 7.9 per cent per year in value terms since 1980. In 2009, the share of services in world trade reached 21 per cent. Whereas ten years ago agriculture was the main employer of women globally, the services sector is now the first provider of jobs to women: 46.9 per cent in 2008, as compared to 40.4 per cent of male employment. In many developing countries, the more traditional, non-tradable, low-productivity services with reduced capital accumulation potential - such as small retail trade, restaurants, and personal services - are the ones accounting for the increasing share of services in GDP and in total employment, especially of women.
Nevertheless, some concerns and questions regarding the effects of liberalizing trade in services have been raised, inter alia, on the following issues: (i) the possible impact of liberalization on access to essential services, especially for the least favoured segments of the population, including women; (ii) the extent to which liberalization can affect national non-economic policy objectives in areas such as education, health and culture; (iii) the magnitude of short-term adjustment costs and the availability of ways and means to address them. These costs arise from import penetration - both in the services sector as well as in manufacturing – which can generate unemployment and underutilization of factors of production in declining sectors where women may be employed, while new competitive activities may expand only gradually and not provide immediate employment opportunities, especially for women.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) divides trade in services into four “modes” or categories of supply ; among them, GATS Mode 4 encompasses the temporary movement of people as services suppliers. There has been however comparatively less progress in liberalizing GATS Mode 4 compared with other forms of trade in services. Temporary labour mobility offers enormous potential for women’s participation but, until now, the services that have been liberalized in the GATS through Mode 4 are mainly reserved for highly qualified professionals and senior business categories. Most women service providers do not fall within these groups.
Trade negotiators from developed countries often argue that GATS Mode 4 is unworkable, particularly for semi-skilled and unskilled service providers, if countries of origin cannot guarantee the return of their service providers working abroad and therefore ensure that their stay in a foreign country is indeed temporary. Failure to return to one’s country of origin makes GATS Mode 4 a migration issue rather than a trade issue, and hence a highly politically sensitive one. However, experience from some bilateral agreements between developed and developing countries shows that measures can be put in place to ensure that workers’ stay abroad is temporary. Negative incentives - including monitoring systems and penalties for overstay abroad - and positive incentives - such as investment and training schemes that enable workers to re-integrate their home countries after the duration of their contract in a foreign country - have been utilized to ensure that services providers return home after the end of their contract abroad. Some of these measures could be incorporated in the GATS commitments on Mode 4.
Lack of recognition of their professional and academic qualifications remains a major obstacle for developing country women willing to provide their services abroad through Mode 4. The GATS allows Member States to deviate from the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) requirement and to set up bilateral or plurilateral Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) of academic and professional qualifications. Professions where many women are employed, for instance health care or social work, fall in most countries into the category of "accredited" or "regulated" professions where mutual recognition of qualifications is of particular relevance. At present, however, developing country participation in MRAs is limited to a small number of countries.
In order to increase women’s participation and benefits from international trade in services through GATS Mode 4, it is necessary to enhance multilateral dialogue and share good practices on the enforcement of the conditions of service under this modality. Measures that can further facilitate the international temporary movement of service traders are as follows: (a) simplifying the granting of visas, work permits and licensing requirements; (b) enhancing temporary movement of lower-skilled workers; (c) eliminating or reducing economic needs tests and making them more transparent and predictable; and (d) facilitating recognition of professional qualifications, including work-based qualifications. Moreover, since countries are unlikely to make wide-ranging commitments on lower-skilled workers under GATS –a category in which many women fall- clearly specifying which categories of workers, which sectors and which kind of employments are covered would facilitate the scheduling of commitments under the Mode 4.
Ensuring wage parity between lower-skilled domestic and foreign workers would make the granting of market access much more acceptable and dispel concerns about depression of wages and working conditions in the local labour market; it would also protect the interest of the foreign workers by reducing the scope for underpaid labour.
In conclusion, putting emphasis on issues affecting migrant women’s workers well-being and interests in the negotiation of agreements on the temporary movement of services suppliers is a necessity.